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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

09/2014 manuscript  of the month

Writing with the Air

At first glance, this book looks much like any other Arabic manuscript. Upon opening the fine brown leather binding with its protective flap (Fig. 1), a typical feature of Islamic books, the first few pages present the reader with a text written in a clear and conventional hand. Not long after opening the volume, however, a couple of lines announce a most unusual reading experience: “Read letters without ink / Rather, the air has become its ink (iqra’ ḥurūfan bi-lā midād / qad ṣāra ḥibran la-hā l-hawā إقرأ حروفاً بلا مداد / قد صار حبراً لها الهوأ)”. What exactly is this supposed to mean? What did the unsuspecting onlooker encounter when he turned the pages written with letters made of air?

Fig. 1: The brown leather binding with a flap. > Enlarge

Producing a neat copy of a manuscript is a difficult undertaking by any means: adhering to the rules of calligraphy from cutting the reed to keeping the letters in proportion is a task only well-trained professionals can manage. For many younger scholars today, it would be hard to imagine putting a text on paper without pressing a ‘print’ button, but by spending many hours, days or even months writing it by hand. The artist who produced the book presented here would take this kind of dedication to another level. In a multiple-text manuscript containing three parts, the last two are not written down, but cut out from the paper.

These last two texts – the main content of this volume, actually – consist of two compilations of poetry, called in one instance Bayān al-takhṣīṣ fī ma῾ānī al-tafṣīṣ, a rather abstract title that does not provide many clues to the content and may only be rendered tentatively as Making the specification apparent in the meaning of peculiarities. The collection aims to present a broad variety of topics (praise and disgrace, love and mourning, descriptions of nature and beauty) and brings acclaimed poets together from pre-Islamic times up to the late Mamluk period in the 15th century. As the preface explains, this eclectic compilation is meant to serve “everyone who witnesses it as a garden and everyone who spends time with it as nourishment”. The compiler is not named, but he might be the “writer” (kātib) of one of the texts, Muḥammad, the son of Urkumās al-Ḥanafī (Fig. 2), who in turn can be identified as Muḥammad b. Urkumās al-Yashbakī al-Niẓāmī al-Ḥanafī, a well-respected but otherwise little-known transmitter of prophetic traditions and exegeses of the Koran who was born in Egypt in 842 AH / 1438 CE and apparently still lived there at the beginning of the 16th century CE.

Fig. 2: Light falling through the cut-out script on fol. 49v.
On fol. 50r, the writer and/or author has inscribed his name,
Muḥammad b. Urkumās al-Ḥanafī. > Enlarge

In terms of their complexity, these two texts are not a heavy read, which might have something to do with the special way in which they were produced; the cut-out technique is a major investment in time and space. Each sheet of the extra-thick paper can only hold one page of writing. With only five lines to the page, the short texts presented here already amount to a considerable volume – and it probably was not a cheap one either. There may be limits as to how much text one could reasonably produce in this style.

Calligraphic paper-cutting might have originated in Central Asia under Turkish-speaking dynasties, where surviving specimens and historical narratives about the technique have come down to us from the 15th century. Two techniques of cut-out calligraphy were in use. In one, the letters were cut out and then pasted on a support. This method was often used for single, richly ornamented sheets where a verse or sentence might also have a zoomorphic form such as that of a lion. The latter, more rarely encountered technique is the one represented here. Not the cut-out paper, but rather its absence was to be used, the text being represented by a void.

Fig. 3: A note on fol. 11v left by the
reader, Ibrahim b. Muhammad
al-Khalwati, in the year 1653 CE.
> Enlarge

Most surviving specimens originated in the central Ottoman region of western Anatolia, whose capital was Constantinople (Istanbul), where the technique seems to have been particularly en vogue at the court of Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The very different book culture of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire did have its own affection for calligraphic mastery, but did not seem to have a comparable interest in cut-out calligraphy. This specimen, however, has an Egyptian history.

The volume was acquired in 1807 by Ulrich Jasper Seetzen (1767–1811), a German researcher travelling the Middle East with an official order to search for antiquities, natural curiosities and also books to be sent back to his princely patron, the Duke of Gotha. In this case, Seetzen found the manuscript in the Egyptian metropolis of Cairo, where he spent the years from 1807 to 1809. Whether it was actually produced in Egypt is not clear, however. Chronograms – i.e. verses which provide a clue to their dating by the addition of the numerical value of their letters – concerning events in Egypt in the year 1018 AH / 1609–10 CE that were penned at the beginning of the book make it very likely that it was found there at least around this date. Furthermore, if the identification of the author and scribe as a Cairo-based scholar in the 15th century is correct, this could very well be the earliest surviving specimen of a cut-out book from Egypt.

Later on, one reader left a note in Arabic documenting his perusal of the volume. His name was Ibrahim b. Muhammad al-Khalwati and he dated his entry at the end of Rajab 1063 AH / end of June 1653 CE (Fig. 3). The book’s special format did not entice this reader to leave a comment, though. Hence, we are left without any information as to how the possessors of this volume perceived or dealt with its quite unusual nature.

Fig. 4: On fol. 38v, ornaments are growing out of the initial
invocation of the text. The script is underlaid with coloured
paper and someone has added a line of numerals in the
right-hand margin as well as between the ornaments.
> Enlarge

Compared to the creative rendering on many of the zoomorphic pages, this specimen looks rather unassuming, presenting nothing but a clear and elegant nashkî script – a typical book-hand. The only exceptions are the geometrical patterns growing out of the initial basmalah, the invocation of God preceding any Muslim text of the period (Fig. 4). The aesthetic effect of the technique was often augmented by attaching a sheet of contrasting colour to the back of the cut-out page, as was also done in this book in some cases. The complete absence of any additional adornment or effect other than the naked script leaves one wondering whether Egypt did not produce the same lavishly decorated specimens as were en vogue at the Ottoman court or whether this piece was never finished.

Wilhelm Pertsch, who authored a comprehensive catalogue of all the Arabic manuscripts in Gotha in the 19th century, was perplexed by this work and speculated about the reason why it had been undertaken. At the time, he was looking at something unique that could not be found in any other European library. In his view, one possible use of it was “as a stencil to reproduce the text”, therefore something like a proto-print technique. He could not find any evidence of that, however. Today we know of many more specimens of cut-out books and can be certain that they did not serve as a kind of substitute for mechanical reproduction, but rather as a showpiece of curious skills and an appraisal of the aesthetics of the art of the book.


BLAIR, Sheila (2006): Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 55-56, 449-451, 515-516.

PERTSCH, Wilhelm (1878): Die Arabischen Handschriften der Herzoglichen Bibliothek zu Gotha, volume 1. Gotha: Friedr. Andr. Perthes, 86-87.

SCHMITZ, Barbara (1993): “Cut paper”. In: Encyclopaedia Iranica online. (accessed on 11/1/2014).


Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, Schloss Friedenstein, Germany
Shelfmark: A 42
Material: Paper, 75 folios, with 23 being blank to provide a background for the cut-out text/21 lines per page (written part),
5 lines per page (cut-out part); brown leather cover with a flap, gold-edged central medallion
Dimensions: 25 x 19 cm
Place of origin: 9th–10th c. AH / 15th–16th c. CE, probably from Egypt.

Text by Boris Liebrenz